Each year, former President Barack Obama shares his top books, many of which describe the sensitive balance of experiences related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). His 2020 books are no different, offering some of the best writing and compelling stories entangled with the complications presented by characteristics of race, culture, poverty, or health. Not all books have DEI as a central theme, but as a group, they express how people who are different from the majority or the powerful must behave in order to get by, even to survive. WorldCat links are provided for more information about the books.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
India’s traditional (but evolving) social structure is usually the first to come to mind when speaking of a caste system, but Wilkerson makes the case that American society is as rigidly defined by “unchangeable physical characteristics.”
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker
Starting in the 1940s when the first of twelve children was born, the Galvin family endured the complicated and traumatic experience of raising six of them with schizophrenia. Studied by researchers, their DNA offers vital clues on the genetic predisposition of the disease.
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha D. Trethewey
A poet describes her upbringing in an interracial family and the shattering tragedy of her mother’s murder by her stepfather and how these experiences shaped her life and art.
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
Winston Churchill’s leadership, which rallied the British people against Hitler’s terrorizing campaign, is vividly described.
Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum
An historian writes of the decline of democracy and rise of nationalism around the globe.
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
A Harvard graduate, writer, and DREAMer (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act), Cornejo Villavicencio writes personally about the experiences of the undocumented immigrant.
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
A killing by a Brooklyn church deacon in front of everyone unravels the lives and lies of the community.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
“[A] massive Ponzi scheme implodes in New York, taking with it the finances, hopes, and lives, of hundreds of people.”
Homeland Elegies: A Novel by Ayad Akhtar
Both a work of fiction and family stories, Homeland Elegies describes the author’s questions about his identity as a Muslim after the 9/11 attacks.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang
Set during the Gold Rush in the American West, two orphaned Chinese sisters run for their lives as they confront hardships from poverty and racial prejudice.
Jack by Marilynne Robinson
In the fourth of the Gilead series, Robinson describes the interracial relationship between a minister’s son and a preacher’s daughter.
Long Bright River by Liz Moore
An opioid addiction tears apart two sisters: Kacey with the addiction, Mickey in law enforcement. When Kacey disappears, the story becomes a suspense novel.
Luster by Raven Leilani
A twenty-something young Black woman meets a forty-something middle-aged white man and begins a relationship not only with him, but his wife and adopted Black daughter.
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
Established in 2025, the “Ministry for the Future” attempts to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Missionaries by Phil Klay
“[T]he globalization of violence [seen] through the interlocking stories of four characters and the conflicts that define their lives.”
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
Young Nainoa falls overboard off a tour boat, but a shark implausibly saves him. Hawaiian myth and mysticism are central to this story of the Flores family.
Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Identical twins go their separate ways. One continues her life in her childhood Southern town made up of uncommonly light-skinned Blacks, and the other leaves town to assume the identity of a white woman.